CINCINNATI - A packed stadium. First place on the line in mid-November. The Bengals are used to this.
No, not the Bengals franchise. Pivotal games so late in the season are a rarity in Cincinnati. For this year's Bengals, though, it's not all that different.
A year ago, many of them were playing big games in packed stadiums on college campuses.
The young Bengals (6-2) seem undaunted by the turn their schedule takes starting today against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3), a team that annually turns Paul Brown Stadium into a place where Terrible Towels are as populous as tiger stripes. Pittsburgh has won eight of its last nine games in Cincinnati, a foreboding statistic.
They're too young to think anything of it.
"That's what I think is the biggest thing this year: The self-doubt's not there," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We're not worried about what we played like in 2006, we're not worried about what we played like in 2001, we're not worried what they played like in 1982. We're worried about how we play.
"We have a young team that's starting their own legacy, their own beginning. That's what we're trying to do."
A team led by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has gotten a good start at it.
The Bengals are tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North. They've won five in a row, something they hadn't done since 1988 - the last time they reached the Super Bowl. A win over the Steelers would tie the second-longest winning streak in franchise history.
Pretty heady stuff for the newcomers, right?
"I've been on some pretty good teams," said Dalton, a second-round pick from TCU. "We definitely had some rivalries. Anytime we played a team that was from Texas, it was a big game. I definitely had some fun games in college against some of our conference opponents. Utah, BYU. It's a little different now."
The Steelers will show them what an NFL rivalry is all about.
Pittsburgh is used to coming to town and shoving the Bengals around. Thousands of their fans make the five-hour drive and fill Paul Brown Stadium, which has been one-third empty this season. The game Sunday is Cincinnati's first home sellout in year.
That last sellout? When the Steelers were in town last November and got a 27-21 win.
"We love going on the road and seeing the black and gold," safety Ryan Clark said. "We love going on the road and seeing Terrible Towels in the stands. It gives you a feeling of familiarity and it gives you a feeling of comfort. That's what you need when you're facing a tough division opponent."
For a change, the Steelers need the game more than the home team.
Pittsburgh's defense gave up a touchdown in the closing seconds of a 23-20 loss to Baltimore on Sunday that dropped the Steelers to 0-2 against the Ravens. Another loss on Sunday would leave them in trouble in one of the important tiebreakers.
"We're 0-2 in the division, so we're behind the 8-ball already," Clark said. "We're not looking at it as a loss puts us behind the 8-ball; we're looking at it as we're behind the 8-ball as we speak because we need two (division) wins to break even at this point."
It'll likely come down to whether the Steelers' injury-depleted defense can get Dalton rattled for the first time this season. Dalton threw a career-high three touchdown passes in a 24-17 win over Tennessee last Sunday, leading a second-half comeback from a 10-point deficit. He's led late, go-ahead drives three times during the winning streak.
Running a West Coast offense that allows him to move around and make quick throws, Dalton has 12 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He's been sacked 12 times.
"I think he's done a couple of things particularly well that aren't characteristic of a young guy," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I think he's doing an awesome job of taking care of the football, and I also think he's doing an awesome job of making quick decisions."
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will try to change that by showing Dalton some things he's never seen.
"With coach LeBeau and the Steelers, you never know what you're going to get," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said.
The game starts a decisive stretch for the surprising Bengals - against Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, home against Cleveland, at Pittsburgh. On Sunday, they'll have a chance to move a game and a half ahead of the Steelers, who have been to the Super Bowl three times in the last five years.
"We know what this game means, what this week means," Bengals defensive lineman Domata Peko said.
And if they win?
"The sky's the limit," he said.